Fifty miles per gallon? That’s what Honda claimed. But Heather Peters’ 2006 Civic Hybrid never did better than 41, maybe 42 mpg. And when Honda “fixed” her battery, the car dropped below 30 mpg. Instead of agreeing to take part in a class-action suit against Honda, which would have made trial lawyers rich while giving car owners minimal payback, Peters took the automaker to small claims court—where she was just awarded $9,867.
In a proposed class-action settlement against Honda, Civic Hybrid owners would receive $100 to $200, plus a $1,000 credit toward the purchase of a new car. Trial lawyers, on the other hand, stand to pull in $8.5 million.
Heather Peters, who owns a 2006 Civic Hybrid and who just happens to be a former attorney, felt that both key parts of that settlement weren’t fair. So, instead of signing on to the class-action suit, she decided to take Honda to a Small Claims Court in Southern California, where she lives. In California, a small claims suit can award damages up to $10,000, and laws don’t allow companies to use teams of attorneys to mount defenses. In a small claims setting, Peters could not only be awarded more money, she seemed to have a better chance of winning her case.
And win she did. The Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, and others report that after roughly three hours of testimony over the course of two days—which is unusually long for a small claims case—the superior court commissioner hearing the case awarded Peters $9,867 in damages. While the commissioner found that Honda committed fraud, there wasn’t enough proof that the fraud was intentional, so no punitive damages were awarded. Instead, as the AP wrote:
Most of the damages Peters was awarded were for extra money spent on fuel, both in the past and future, the cost of the car battery, and the decrease in the car’s value because of its problems.
Honda defended itself by contending that the way cars are driven and maintained have a huge impact on what sort of mileage they get. Nonetheless, the commissioner decided that Honda misled Peters by claiming that the car would use “amazingly little fuel,” and that it would “save plenty of money on fuel with up to 50 mpg during city driving.”
For Peters, winning the suit is just the beginning. She’s launched a website, DontSettleWithHonda.org, where other car owners can contact her and get help filing similar small claims lawsuits—something most people never do because of the time, expense, and aggravation involved. Peters even plans on reactivating her state license to work as an attorney so that she can represent her fellow Civic Hybrid owners in suits against Honda.
As for the automaker, it’s surely looking into the possibility of bringing Peters’ case to a higher authority. Any party that loses a small-claims case has the right to request that the trial be heard again in Superior Court. And there, the LA Times notes, Honda “will be allowed to bring in its army of lawyers to try to overturn any small-claims judgment.”